The @intellectualpooperty account was my favorite beer Instagram follow of 2018. Its sole purpose is to, on a near-daily basis, show all the IP infringement occurring in the brewing world (tagline: “Putting the IP in IPA”). The feed includes cans featuring Bart Simpson and Beavis & Butt-Head (er, “Beeris & Brew-head”); Ecto Cooler-like rip-offs with Slimer from Ghostbusters bursting from the bottle; labels meant to look like Snickers wrappers, Fruity Pebbles boxes and Capri Sun pouches. In a way, Intellectual Pooperty serves as a perfect field report for beer in 2018—an insular world refusing to grow up.
It isn’t just the Saturday-morning-cartoon labels, either. The predominant flavor profiles of craft beer today still lean toward juvenile enjoyment: New England-style IPAs (NEIPAs) that taste like OJ, so-called “sours” that have so much fruit purée dumped into them they have the taste and texture of a Jamba Juice and stouts have become more akin to a Dairy Queen Blizzard than anything one might classically define as beer.
That’s why the brews I was most impressed with this year were those made for grown-ups. More specifically, classic European-style beers being tackled by skilled American brewers. That includes singular explorations of wild yeast and microflora, barrel-aging and blending techniques; farmhouse-style beers made on honest-to-goodness farms, sometimes even using locally-foraged ingredients; and spontaneous wild ales that rely on nature to do most of the work.
As I mentioned last year, top beer lists are inherently personal, as is this one. There are now over 7,000 breweries in America and many release a couple new beers literally every single weekend. It would be hard enough to try every beer in your state, much less America. The entire world? Impossible. That’s why this year I decided to focus strictly on American beer. For better or worse, it remains the vanguard.
The Top 15
Five Boroughs Köllaboration Kölsch
The menu board at the roomy Sunset Park taproom noted that this beer was made with 100 percent Köln malt. “Is that atypical?” I asked co-founder Kevin O’Donnell. “I don’t know!” he said with a laugh, adding, “but I thought it would help sell it.” What a world where claiming an Old-World European pedigree now greatly appeals to a small subset of stateside beer drinkers. Köln (or Cologne) is, of course, the home of kölsch, and some top German brewers came to Brooklyn to provide their malts and help brew this beer. Atypical or not, the collaboration produced the best version of the style I’ve had on American soil. It’s full of lemon zest on the nose courtesy of New York state hops, followed up with a honeyed sweetness balanced by that classic tongue-scrubbing bitter bite endemic to the style.
- ABV: 4.5 percent
Brewery Silvaticus Marquis De Spruce
How fun to stumble upon a beer with such little hype that it’s practically off the grid. Currently registering zero reviews on both BeerAdvocate and RateBeer, this traditional Munich Helles lager is made in an untraditional fashion utilizing blue spruce tips from woods nearby the Amesbury, Massachusetts, brewpub. (“Silvaticus” is Latin for wild and “of the woods.”) The spruce adds a pleasant piney aroma to a classic bready, citrusy base. Well-integrated and clean, it’s the sort of beer you could easily have three of.
- ABV: 5.4 percent
Forest & Main Uncle Nickel
This charming Philadelphia suburbs brewery, located in a 19th-century Victorian home on Ambler’s literal “Main Street,” was a welcome respite after a summer morning with my daughter at nearby Sesame Place. While the brewery excels at making mixed-fermentation farmhouse beers, as well as bitterly un-hip low-ABV British ales, I was most impressed by this tap-only IPA. Brewed, according to the menu, with “foraged yeast,” it’s certainly unlike any IPA on the market today. Funky and almost perry-like on the nose, its citrus-peel astringency gives it an uncommon restraint and textural complexity.
- ABV: 5 percent
Live Oak Grodziskie
While other pioneering breweries have started to betray their ethos, chasing trends and the almighty dollar, this Austin brewery has begun doubling down on what gave them their name in the first place. With Grodziskie, they’ve unearthed an arcane Polish beer style that went extinct in 1991. They’ve made it in small scale since 2014, but this spring they began canning Grodziskie and added it to their year-round portfolio (replacing an IPA, no less). This beer is made with oak-smoked wheat and a yeast strain from Poland, then hopped like a pilsner. Extremely flavorful despite its very modest ABV, the crystal-clear beer is thirst-quenching with a mild campfire note—perfect for hot nights in the Hill Country.
- ABV: 3.2 percent
Scratch Botanical Bottle Series
Released in late 2017, this is one of the most intriguing beer projects I encountered this year. Sold in a $50 mixed four-pack, I couldn’t pick one favorite, so I choose the whole series. These four beers—each with simple labels and simpler names—were all brewed with flora that surrounds Scratch’s southern Illinois farmhouse brewery. Using their house wild yeast, each beer truly captures the “essence” of each botanical. Flowers—brewed with bee balm and marigold, among others—is, not surprisingly, incredibly floral and perfume-like. Leaves—brewed with 33 different plant leaves—is earthy and almost gin-like. While Roots and Bark both offer more vegetal, woody, even bitter flavor profiles.
- ABV: various
Birds Fly South Brand New Eyes
When I visit my father-in-law in the Lowcountry, I have very little time to beer shop. It generally goes like this: run into the strip-mall liquor store while my wife keeps the rental car idling and grab a few things that look interesting. That’s how I ended up with this Greenville, South Carolina, saison. It checked all the boxes for what I want in the style: musty, lemony and a tad acidic but not sour, with an undercurrent of malty sweetness countered by refreshing, cleansing carbonation.
- ABV: 5.5 percent
I was certain Grimm Artisanal Ales would remain a gypsy brewing operation after years of resisting a brick-and-mortar locale despite their increasing fame. But I was glad to eat crow as I drank through the opening lineup at their gorgeous new East Williamsburg taproom. While their mainstream releases in the past year or two had grown fairly by-the-book, they were clearly biding time for the onslaught of sophisticated barrel-aged offerings. Lilt, a golden wild ale aged in oak barrels (some as long as 18 months) then re-fermented on tart Montmorency cherries, was the best of the bunch. It’s full of intense cherry-pie aromas balanced by high acid, a bit of funk and perfect, prickly carbonation.
- ABV: 6 percent
Arizona Wilderness Camp Coolship (Batch #1)
In the spring of 2016, this Phoenix-area brewery (along with their buddies from Brooklyn’s Other Half) drove a mobile coolship northeast to the Mogollon Rim, an escarpment on the southwestern edge of the Colorado Plateau. Once in that unique locale, they allowed a lambic-style turbid mash they had brewed that very morning to be inoculated by the area’s microflora to start the spontaneous fermentation process. The nose is sappy and conifer-like, while the flavor profile hews more toward tart cherries, with a slightly lactic finish. The brewery has continued their mobile coolship explorations with additional trips to other unique terroirs.
- ABV: 6.6 percent
Beachwood Blendery Funk Yeah!
This was a first: A sample accompanied by a bound academic paper. Entitled Brewing Beer in America Inspired By the Belgian Lambic Tradition, it was head brewer/blender Ryan Fields’s treatise on the systems he has employed to enable his four-year-old Long Beach, California, outfit to produce something akin to traditional spontaneously-fermented sour beer. A compelling read, it would be nothing more than sound and fury if the beer—a blend of one-, two-, and three-year-old wild beer, aged in oak—wasn’t excellent, too. It’s citrusy, tropical and very gueuze-like in texture and acidity. Last year, the brewery’s Chaos is a Friend of Mine was a top pick in our American-style lambic blind tasting; Funk Yeah! shows that their processes are getting even better.
- ABV: 6.4 percent
Suarez Family Domain (Blend #2)
Making a best beers list is never truly pure. There is always an effort to diversify by region, style, etc. But Dan Suarez’s beers are so markedly better than most everyone else’s, it’s impossible not to include them. In fact, they’ve been in my top beers of the year list since they opened, in 2015. This second Domain release is a blend of several different “country beers”—what Suarez calls farmhouse ales—some first brewed back in 2016. Bottled in the fall of 2017, it wasn’t “ready” until this year, and the wait was worth it. Domain is extremely bright with notes of tart cherries backed up by a creamy mouthfeel and a hint of savory nuttiness around the edges. It’s hard to pin down its profile as it literally changes with every sip.
- ABV: 5.6 percent
Fermentery Form Super!
It would be hard to name a less hip style in 2018 than the Belgian tripel. Nevertheless, this avant-garde Philadelphia brewery managed to make it modern while still honoring its roots. The head has a meringue-like fluffiness that bursts with a zesty, citrusy nose. Despite its ABV, it’s surprisingly easy-drinking and savory with notes of dried stone fruits and a touch of funk. It’s slightly sweetened by evaporated cane sugar—added sweetener is a hallmark of the style—but it avoids the cloyingness to which so many American examples of the style fall victim. The brewery claims this is what a tripel once “may have been,” while admitting they prefer to call it a rustic golden ale or “super saison.” I’ll call it world-class.
- ABV: 8.5 percent
Monday Night Brewing Don’t Call it Hotlanta
It’s rare that a NEIPA impresses me these days; there’s a certain bland sameness that has come to define the style. Not here. Though perfectly hazy and bright-orange in color, it has a few unexpected things going on. It’s tropical and citrusy, sure, but it also has the presence of malt, a peppery finish and an oilier mouthfeel than most of the genre. These days I always have to question myself when I actually love an NEIPA: Was I in a generous mood that day or was my palate fried? Was I already drunk?! No, in this case, the beer was actually that good.
- ABV: 8.5 percent
Goose Island Islay
The new archetypal flavor profile of the barrel-aged stout is so candy-coated it could give you a cavity. Goose Island releases plenty of those themselves, courtesy their Bourbon County Brand Stout series. That’s one reason I found it so fascinating that this year Goose Island also created the complete antithesis to what most beer geeks want in a stout, taking Bourbon County’s base beer and aging it in Ardbeg Scotch barrels for 15 months. The result is full of iodine on the nose, which leans into a smoky, briny palate and a finish that is dry as a bone. Most drinkers I spoke to couldn’t get through a few ounces of this, but I adored it.
- ABV: 13.4 percent
Firestone Walker XXII Anniversary Ale
When this Paso Robles brewery first started releasing this annual series with “X” in 2006, the beer was considered a much-coveted “whale.” Time marched on, however, and today, 12 years later, the annual release has become a shelf turd, with geeks more interested in beers whose complexity is built through an overload of adjuncts. This year’s release is a reminder of how blending can create greater complexity than any kitchen-sink collection of added flavors. Put together by Central Coast wine blenders, it consists of a bourbon barrel-aged Belgian quad, imperial stout and a brown ale, alongside a rum barrel-aged and gin barrel-aged blonde barley wine. Port-like with layers of dark fruit flavor, it’s never too boozy, and well worth seeking out for beer lovers who’ve turned their backs on the series.
- ABV: 12.7 percent
J. Wakefield Haterade
Alas, I am just a man, and even if I inherently rail against the current stupidity of beer that “doesn’t taste like beer,” sometimes someone hands me one of those and I think, “This is so goddamn silly,” and then I sip it and I think, “Goddamn, that’s delicious.” Such was the case with this—a lipstick red Berliner Weisse loaded with fruits that channels Hawaiian Punch. For a while it was a tap-only cult hit at this Miami operation, but it was canned for the first time this spring. I wanted to mock it, I wanted to think I was above it, but I couldn’t stop drinking it. What can I say, sometimes the palate doesn’t want to grow up.
- ABV: 6 percent